Hundreds of Thousands of Poor to Lose Health Coverage in Months
April 24, 2005
By Stephanie Simon, Times Staff Writer
SIKESTON, Mo. — Hundreds of thousands of poor people across the nation will lose their state-subsidized health insurance in the coming months as legislators scramble to hold down the enormous — and ever-escalating — cost of Medicaid.
Here in impoverished southeast Missouri, nurses at a family health clinic stash drug samples for patients they know won't be able to afford their prescriptions after their coverage is eliminated this summer. Doctors try to comfort waitresses, sales clerks and others who will soon lose coverage for medical, dental and mental healthcare.
Lawmakers say they feel for those who will lose coverage. But they say also that they have no alternative.
Prenatal checkups, care in nursing homes and other health services for the poor and disabled account for more than 25% of total spending in many states. Medicaid is often a state's single biggest budget item, more expensive even than K-12 education. And the price of services, especially prescription drugs and skilled nursing for the elderly, continues to soar.
The federal government helps pay for Medicaid, but in the coming fiscal year, the federal contribution will drop by more than $1 billion because of changes in the cost-share formula. President Bush has warned of far deeper cuts to come; he aims to reduce federal spending on Medicaid by as much as $40 billion over the next decade.
"It's frightening a lot of governors," said Diane Rowland, executive director of the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured.
Every state has frozen or is trying to cut the fees they pay doctors to care for Medicaid patients. More than a dozen states are looking for ways to cut the number of people covered — or reduce their benefits. Several are proposing restructuring the entire program.
In Tennessee, Gov. Phil Bredesen plans to end coverage for more than 320,000 adults, many of them elderly. In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to shift more Medicaid recipients into managed care and require some to pay monthly premiums.
Minnesota may stop insuring 27,000 college students and adults without children. Washington state may require senior citizens to pay $3 for each prescription that Medicaid used to provide for free.
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have proposed privatizing Medicaid. Bush wants to give recipients vouchers so they can shop around for their own insurance plans. Sanford wants to set up Medicaid bank accounts; the state would deposit a fixed sum of money for each patient to spend on medical expenses.
In Missouri, where nearly one in five residents is enrolled in Medicaid, Gov. Matt Blunt is poised to sign the most drastic overhaul of all: a bill that would eliminate the program entirely in three years.
Blunt expects that by then, the state will have established an alternative mechanism for helping the poorest of the poor. But the legislation on his desk does not insist on it. It only states that Missouri Medicaid will cease on June 30, 2008.
In the meantime, the bill severely cuts the existing program, ending coverage for an estimated 65,000 to 100,000 people....